As the Auburn Tigers take on the Oklahoma Sooners on Wednesday night in neutral site game in the state of Connecticut a group of in-state basketball fans are scheduled to be there as a personal cheering section for AU freshman Mustapha Heron.
Two buses of fans from Heron’s hometown are expected to be at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville where the Tigers and Sooners will tip off at 7:30 p.m. (TV coverage on the CBS Sports Network). There is also a large group of Heron fans expected to attend Auburn’s game on Friday in Hartford vs. the UConn Huskies.
“It means the world to me knowing that there is support from back home and everybody is still tuned in,” said Heron, who is averaging 16.1 points per game and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds.
“I have a lot of people still talk to me about every game and people watch every game back at home,” said Heron, who led Sacred Heart High in Waterbury to a state championship last season. “People were getting the SEC Network paying for it out of their pockets just to watch me play. That means a lot.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he was glad to be able to play three games near Heron’s hometown this year, including the Under Armour Reunion contest the Tigers played on Dec. 12th vs. Boston College.
“Originally, when we put the schedule together, I took the Under Armour game in New York, and that was his opportunity to go back,” Pearl pointed out. “Then the Oklahoma thing surfaced up later, and I looked at it because we were already taking him back to New York as more of an opportunity for our team than just for Mustapha. That’s the progression of it.
“We had the opportunity to play UConn and Oklahoma. Those are two NCAA Tournament teams. Those are two Top 20 teams clearly in the country. Wow, what an opportunity. What a litmus test for us, but then as it turns out to get Mustapha back home three times it is really significant, and so, yes, some thought did go into that.
“We’ll have a lot of people from Waterbury, Connecticut, there, there will be a lot of people from Sacred Heart High School, there will be buses because Mustapha was a leader of his school and he was a leader in his community.”
Pearl noted that some of the fans attending are ones who have participated in the Mustapha Heron Reading Program, “something he and his father have been doing for years in the Waterbury and surrounding county areas. What 18-year old kid has his name on a reading program and has for several years? What that has been is read a certain number of books and you get shoes and bags. They’ve had different sponsors. Under Armour has been a sponsor, I think Adidas has been a sponsor, whatever they can get their hands on as incentives for these young people.
“Mustapha’s dad, Bryan, is in law enforcement, and he is a real role model and a real mentor in that community, and so he’s certainly asked and put his son out front in that position to also use his standing as a student-athlete to be a role model and out front in that community,” Pearl said.
Mustapha Heron drives to the basket vs. Eastern Kentucky.
Asked about the idea behind the program, Heron said, “The reading scores in the city were real low so I wanted to be able to do something to motivate the kids to be able to read and write and hopefully they take it and run with it. A lot of the kids get excited with the prizes and stuff, but hopefully in the future as they get older they’ll just find reading and writing to be fun.”
Auburn will take an 8-2 record into the game vs. Oklahoma, which is 6-4. The Sooners, who return two starters from last season’s Final Four team, will be one of the most talented teams the Tigers face this year, according to Pearl.
“The Oklahoma game could be a track meet,” Pearl said. “It could be an unbelievable up-and-down affair because they want to run, and they’re really good running. We’re not afraid to run, but they could run us out of the gym. They could run us right off the floor because that’s how good they are running so we’ll play fast, but if we play too fast, that will play into Oklahoma’s hands.”